AN exciting exhibition of embroideries opens in the Tatham Art Gallery’s Schreiner Gallery on June 26, running until August 3. On show will be the work of the Fancy Stitch Group from Ingwavuma — brilliantly coloured single-thread hand embroideries.
Some are in the form of pictures or wall hangings, but others are made up into greeting cards, key rings, bookmarks and photograph frames. Their colours are brilliant and their stitches meticulous, and while some are purely decorative, others tell stories of rural life — scenes such as two men sitting under a tree having a beer or mourners at a funeral.
The Fancy Stitch group began back in 2001 when Maryna Heese started a small income-generating project in the Ingwavuma area with a group of local women. Their first product was a Christmas card and the group of women involved numbered just 27. Now there are 420 people working on the project in a variety of roles and they have a headquarters in an old supermarket in Ingwavuma.
Heese explains that the seed money to get started came from the sale of a beautiful embroidery made by one of the women in the early days. “An Aids association in Berne, Switzerland bought it and used it as a postcard, so that gave us a start,” she says.
The embroiderers work from home and the project provides training and some materials. They sell the embroidery cottons on to the stitchers at subsidised prices — and once the work comes in the embroiderers are paid immediately. “It’s an administrative nightmare to wait until pieces are sold before we pay them and they need the money, so we pay straight away,” says Heese.
The reason they chose to work in single thread was to differentiate their work from that of other groups, most of whom work in coarser embroidery cottons. The Fancy Stitch pieces are small but the detail and skill are remarkable.
Ingwavuma is close to the Swazi border, in a remote, rural area with almost no opportunities for work except at the local hospital and with a very high rate of HIV infection. The Fancy Stitch project has taken people out of a situation of being totally dependent on others to a position where some have been able to build their own houses — and feed and clothe their children.
While the exhibition is running, there will be a continuous audio-visual display showing visitors what life is like in Ingwavuma. But it is the work on show that will catch the eye, with its jewel-like colours. The bigger pieces are called hlalisas, meaning “to celebrate”. And what they are celebrating is that women are empowering themselves through their work.
The 24 artists on the exhibition have embroidered photograph frames which have then been made up by upholsterer Vusi Masinga. Each one contains a photograph of the embroiderer, along with a brief story about them to give those attending the exhibition a chance to learn a little more about the “fancy stitchers”.
The Tatham approached Heese to ask the project members if they would bring an exhibition of their work. Later this year they are hoping to exhibit again at the Kim Sachs gallery in Johannesburg where their pieces already sell. And then, at the end of next year, a further exhibition is planned, this time at the London University School of Oriental and African studies. The Fancy Stitchers are going places.
• The Tatham exhibition will open at 6 pm on June 26 and runs until August 3. Gallery hours are 10 am to 6 pm, Tuesday to Sunday. On June 27 and June 28 there will be members of the group as Artists in Residence at the gallery.